If someone had told me a week ago that one of the most culturally edifying experiences I would have in Egypt would at an “On the Border” in the CityStars Mall, I would have first given him an odd look, and then laughed in his face. I shouldn’t have metaphorically reacted so brusquely — one of the many beauties of traveling is that everything is a learning experience, even eating at an American chain restaurant in a mega-mall.
To explain — CityStars isn’t even a mall, really. It’s a complex far larger than the Mall of America or any other competitor. Wikipedia knows far more about the details than I: “Built with an Ancient Egyptian theme, it consists of three pyramids (partially glass), surrounded by 11 towers that make up the complex, plus a separate building for the shopping mall…” Within the complex are three hotels, 266 apartments/penthouses, 70,000 sq. meters of office space, and a medical center. We feared that we would be dropped off in the wrong “phase,” but there were no problems.
After doing some shopping, which was also filled with images I’ll never forget — have you ever seen a woman in a burka hold up a tank top? We decided that it was time to eat, seeing as most of the stores were beginning to close for iftar anyway. There’s not much in the way of authenticity at CityStars (i.e. no 40 cent koushary), so we decided to go all-out and get Mexican food at On the Border.
When we arrived, there were maybe four tables occupied in the entire restaurant, but for some reason we were told that it was full and we couldn’t be seated.
“What?” we responded, pointedly noting the dozens of empty tables in front of us. “Reserved,” the man responded apologetically, “for iftar.” Not even caring about the cultural coolness of the fact that no one had arrived even fifteen minutes early, we begged the man to let us eat at the bar, and he acquiesced.
The bartenders were pouring (nonalcoholic) drinks by the dozen, and one, Muhammad, gave a girl in our group a glass to try. “Mmm!” she responded, making hand gestures to reinforce the fact that she liked it. Muhammad smiled and nodded, and then distributed the same drink to the rest of us, assuring us that they were, “free, free, and refills forever.”
I have no idea what it is really called, but it’s a deep red, almost purple, drink, maybe hibiscus something, and it sounds like ker-kadi. It’s delicious, and according to Muhammad, often one of the first things you drink when breaking your fast. After refills, they gave us fresh apricot juice, another common iftar drink, and after we ordered they distributed us all individual plates of three dates! Delicious.
Meanwhile, all of the tables were being set with the same drinks and dates, as well as chips and salsa. The restaurant was beginning to fill up, and the atmosphere was tense and loud. No one had eaten, smoked, or had anything to drink since before sunrise, and you could almost feel the impatience in the air.
Then the coolest thing happened. The TV changed from Arabic cartoons to the call to prayer, and everyone lunged in unison for their drink, food, or cigarette — the atmosphere transformed from tense and anticipatory to smoky and laughter-filled on a dime. If you hadn’t known the background of the scene, you may have suspected that everyone had been hypnotized to act in harmony.
There are always benefits to seeing the gritty, “real world” of where you are traveling, but malls and western restaurants are not “imaginary.” They have impacted the culture just like cars and computers, which you would never scoff at using while traveling. The mixture between traditional Muslim values, Mexican food, and an American chain restaurant was an experience not soon forgotten.
Author’s note: I wrote the post above in 2010, when I studied abroad at The American University in Cairo for a semester.